That initially drove what became a wide-ranging conversation with author (and former fashion publicist) Lindy Woodhead — who tied the beauty-business-building lives of Elizabeth Arden and Helena Rubinstein together in her book “War Paint” — off course. The beautiful object in question, casually pulled out of a purse over coffee in the basement café at Bergdorf Goodman in New York, was a bejeweled powder compact that took Woodhead directly back to her “ladies,” as she calls them — Arden and Rubinstein — the original beauty players, if you will.
“This, to me, is really their legacy, because it’s something beautiful,” Woodhead says, examining the compact, and noting how Rubinstein once sold compacts designed by Salvador Dalí. “They’re so pretty and they’re so clever — this, to me, holding this now, this represents their legacy, my ladies — this is it.
“[Bergdorf’s] is name-checked in the show…what they’ve written as [dialogue is] quite funny — acid — and there’s this one particular scene where Rubinstein comes into Bergdorf’s with her sales manager to challenge Arden’s supremacy here,” Woodhead continues. “It’s a very funny scene because Bergdorf’s represents this kind of challenge for her — she was really more of a Bloomingdale’s type.”
The legacy of both ladies is hitting Broadway as Woodhead’s “War Paint” (originally published by Virago Press in 2003) opened for previews March 7. The show, starring Patti LuPone as Rubinstein and Christine Ebersole as Arden, officially opens April 6 at the Nederlander Theatre on West 41st Street. Michael Greif is directing the production, which also features John Dossett and Douglas Sills, both Tony Award nominees. The New York opening follows a run at Chicago’s Goodman Theatre, and a healthy dose of subsequent tweaks, according to Woodhead, who communicated with the writers of the show as it progressed.
“They crave a sort of authenticity to it, which is completely magical,” Woodhead says. “Most people that sell a book, it goes into a drama series, and you say goodbye — you sell your child…they really are completely passionate about showing how hard it was for working women to raise that arc, to get through, to build the business, and how lonely that can be. It can screw up your life. You can love your job — it can’t love you back.”
While both women would likely have attended the same events, the two are thought to have never met. They did, however, both help define the modern-day beauty business through concepts like gift with purchase, a tactic still employed by modern-day beauty companies (including the Estée Lauder Cos. Inc.). Arden’s business is now owned by Revlon Inc., which bought it in 2016, (an odd match, given that Arden referred to Charles Revson as “that man,” Woodhead says), and Rubinstein’s business is under L’Oréal, which bought it in 1988.
After the Arden-Rubinstein era, Lauder indeed was the one who led the way forward, Woodhead says. “She cleaned up, she took everything,” Woodhead said. “She did the gift with purchase, she did the charity events, she did Palm Beach.…I take my hat off to Mrs. Lauder, whom I met. I once terrifyingly asked for a job with her.”
Woodhead describes Lauder entering the room, spraying her famed Youth Dew in front of her. “Youth Dew just made me sneeze,” Woodhead says.
She didn’t get the job, and wound up with a decades-long career in fashion public relations, meeting the contacts she’d need to delve into the histories of Arden and Rubinstein, as well as Harry Selfridge, whom Woodhead wrote “Shopping, Seduction & Mr. Selfridge” about, a book that was turned into a four-season television series in the U.K. and on PBS in the U.S. She also came across Kate Meyrick, who ran the 43 Club (and others) in London during the Twenties and Thirties (Woodhead is still working on that project, but says it’s already been optioned for BBC).
“I found each story from the previous story, so it’s like a little strange trilogy of people who knew each other,” she says.